Labor Sec Nominee Julie Su Hobnobbed with Union Leaders Ahead of Union-Backed Crackdown on Independent Contractors, Calendars Show

Dems sunk acting labor secretary's nomination over perceived favoritism toward unions

Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for One Fair Wage)
January 17, 2024

Julie Su, whom President Joe Biden renominated last week as his labor secretary, favored meetings and events with union leaders over business groups as the Labor Department hammered out its federal, union-backed crackdown on independent contractors, according to a review of her public calendars.

Su’s appointments from her first six months at the labor agency’s helm included a 90-minute dinner date with Liz Shuler, head of the mega-union AFL-CIO, which "wholeheartedly" supported "all aspects" of the then-pending federal independent contractor rule. That rule forces companies to reclassify contractors and freelancers as employees and makes it harder for people to work independently. Su also met with AFL-CIO’s then-legislative counsel Bart Sheard—who just two months ago became Su’s senior adviser at the labor agency—and participated in a roundtable with SEIU, which praised the proposed rule as bringing "fairness and justice to workers."

Beyond these meetings, Su made numerous virtual and in-person appearances at union conventions, such as delivering keynote remarks to Virginia’s AFL-CIO conference. And as she painted herself as someone who finds "common ground" between workers and businesses in her bid to get confirmed, she met with just a handful of CEOs and zero business groups or small business representatives.

Su maintained her apparent labor focus in her early months leading the department even though she had already raised red flags even among Democrats because of her perceived one-sided loyalty toward unions—a view that ultimately sank her confirmation in the Democrat-controlled Senate. As the Labor Department’s number two, she had held regular check-ins with SEIU but met with zero business groups. Her meet-ups and activities with labor groups intensified as it became clear Biden would keep her as a permanent "acting" secretary even though she couldn’t get confirmed.

Meanwhile, her agency was preparing its final version of the union-backed independent contractor policy. The rule, finalized last week, is modeled on a 2019 California law that Su championed and implemented as the state’s former labor chief. Business owners and the self-employed alike have opposed the policy.

"I think her agenda from Day One is to support Big Labor unions—it hasn’t changed," said Tom Manzo, a California-based manufacturer and founder of the California Business and Industrial Alliance, which represents small and mid-size businesses. His group has opposed Su’s elevation to federal office over fears that she would nationalize California’s Big Labor agenda.

All told, Su spent about 15 hours with labor interests, not including her appearances at union conventions, and three hours with CEOs. Su’s appointment schedule is far leaner than that of her predecessor Marty Walsh, who in his final six months as labor chief racked up more than 32 hours with unions and nearly 40 hours with business leaders and associations.

The Labor Department did not respond to a request for comment.

California’s independent contractor law, which Su early on vowed to enforce by auditing people’s wages and taxes, has hit professionals as diverse as freelance writers, tutors, and independent truck drivers. The law was authored by a former Democratic legislator who stepped down to lead one of the state’s most powerful unions. Su’s rollout of the statute caused so much disruption that the state’s Democratic legislature had to go back and exempt songwriters, landscape architects, performance artists, freelance translators, and myriad others from its requirements. The rideshare company Uber is still fighting to overturn the law in a federal appeals court.

Among the more than 54,000 public comments lodged with the Labor Department were many from independent contractors and business owners who pleaded with the federal government to leave their decisions on how to earn money to them. "My freelancing got me through multiple health issues, from a shoulder surgery and eye surgery in the same year to a knee injury that put me on short-term disability," wrote one freelance editor, noting she is able to earn far more than most in the economically poor region of the country where she lives.